May 22, 2019

Slackwater’s Barn Prayer

Slackwater

The SlackWater Center at St. Mary’s College of Maryland is a consortium of students, faculty, and community members documenting and interpreting the region’s changing landscapes. Oral histories are at the core of the center, which encourages students to explore the region through historical documents, images, literature, and scientific and environmental evidence. Some of this work is published in the print journal SlackWater, some of which is online and some published here. The work below was first published in spring 2009.

In 2007, St. Mary’s College of Maryland student Andrew Bove interviewed William Bean and Frances Bean Titus, the children of lifelong St. Mary’s County residents Stephen and Edith Bean. Bove’s interview inspired Lael Neale to compose this piece.

slackwater logoBarn Prayer

By Lael Neale

I glowed on those mornings. The ones when the sun burst across my tobacco fields, sipping the dew from heavy leaves, and crawling up my paint-chipped sides. I watched the men in August, backs bent over rows of jubilant, green tobacco leaves. Devoted to their task, they picked with adept care, intent on harvesting the mature crop before it went to seed. I watched as the lines of sweat spread outward from the laborers’ spines in the humid heat; and I coaxed the men towards my eaves to cool in the shadows and drink from worn-out thermoses. Retreating from the sun, the men leaned against my doors, commenting on the health of the crop, speculating on what the market value of the dried leaves could be come January.

As summer fell to fall, the men ornamented my rafters with the heavy, green plants by lifting the bound crop on tobacco sticks and stringing them across the beams. In the four-to-eight-week curing process, the tobacco shriveled and shrank. The farmer visited occasionally to check the progress, rubbing the dried leaves between cracked fingers stained with plant tar and nicotine. By late autumn, the brown bundles were lowered from my rafters. The leaves were stripped, laid into baskets, and then loaded into the beds of pickup trucks. The farmer’s financial fate was bound up with each load. As he drove off carrying the crop, I’d hear him mutter, “Oh, I think we’re gonna do all right. We’re gonna do all right.”

They did all right for a long time. And sometimes I can still smell the drying leaves radiating the warm scent of sweet hay and rose oil. But these days, although the sun still illuminates my warped wood and heats up my rusted roof, no tobacco leaves decorate my interior. Now, weeds cling to my decaying siding, crawling, flourishing and reveling in my neglect. Change has overgrown my fields. Without men and machines, the willow oaks, smooth alder, southern arrowwood, golden alexanders, and milkweed flourish in the rich, fallow soil.

But of course, I am only an observer. I will preside over these fields until my siding decays to its skeletal beams and my tin roof bends back in the thin winter wind – until they usher in the bulldozers and raze my feeble frame. I miss the sound of human voices and dream of a child playing in the farmhouse yard who digs a hole for no reason except to feel the warm earth beneath her fingertips. Called back inside, she washes her hands, then stares out the window, mesmerized by a flock of birds undulating through autumn skies, wondering what place they call home.

I sigh in the last purple of the dusk as my farm is swallowed into dark stillness. I gather a flock of starlings to my rafters and dream that someone who loves this land as much as the Bean family did will come through my doors to bring labor and life to this farm and this weary barn once again.

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The Slackwater Center

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